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American Muslim

The Hartford Courant - December 21 2003

Influx Of College Students From Arab Countries Slows

Courant Staff Writer

In his first two years at the University of Connecticut, graduate student Shaker Haji worried about running out of food and elbow room at weekend gatherings of the Muslim Student Association.

No more. Attendance at monthly dinners and summer picnics has fallen off, as more and more students head home on weekends and during breaks - not to foreign countries, but to their families in New England. Unlike Haji, a native of Bahrain who is the outgoing president of the student association, most new members of the group are American-born Muslims.

"We've had new undergraduates join, but most are U.S. citizens," said Haji, who plans to return to Bahrain after he earns a graduate degree in chemical engineering next year. "I've enjoyed it here, but it would be nice to have more people from where you live. There are not so many new faces coming from the Middle East."

Although overall foreign student enrollment at UConn has held steady at more than 1,500 in the past two years, the influx of new students from Arab and Muslim countries has slowed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2001, 43 students from 14 Arab and Muslim countries applied for undergraduate admission to the university; this year, there were 10 applicants from six countries.

UConn, like the University of Hartford and Yale University, still reports an increase in enrollment of students from Arab and Muslim countries, but the rate of increase has fallen off.

"We definitely haven't lost our base, but our growth rate has slowed down," said Mark Wentzel, UConn's director of international services.

Other colleges have seen their numbers fall. Last year, the University of Bridgeport hosted 493 students from 22 countries with large Arab or Muslim populations; this year, that number is down to 443. The university's overall foreign enrollment has fallen from 1,174 to 991.

The slowdown in enrollment from Middle Eastern and other Islamic countries follows a national trend that most academics trace to the post-Sept. 11 tightening of visa restrictions, as well as to strained U.S-Arab relations and a slumping global economy.

A recent national survey by the Institute of International Education found that the growth in foreign student enrollment in 2002-03 was the lowest in seven years - 0.6 percent, compared with 6.4 percent increases in the previous two years. Enrollment of students from the Middle East was down 10 percent, to 34,803, from the 2001-02 academic year.

Some of the most dramatic declines were in students from Saudi Arabia (a 25 percent drop, to 4,175); Kuwait (25 percent, to 2,212); the United Arab Emirates (15 percent, to 1,792); and Malaysia (11 percent, to 6,595). Several countries, including India and Kenya, saw strong increases.

A companion report by the institute indicates that the trend is continuing in this school year. An October survey of 276 colleges and universities found significant drops in new admissions from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Allan Goodman, president of the education institute, said there's a perception in some countries that you won't receive a U.S. visa if you apply, that Muslims are not welcome in America. That perception creates its own particular reality," Goodman said. "Colleges need to reassure foreign students that they're welcome."

At UConn, some students from the Middle East say they have given up trying to persuade their peers back home to attend U.S. schools. Haji does not expect that other nationals of Bahrain will follow in his footsteps after he graduates. "My friends at home are applying to the U.K., not the U.S.," he said. "It's the visa issues, and also they're afraid of discrimination."

Haji cited a controversial program, started a year ago, that required visa holders from 25 mostly Arab and Muslim countries to report to immigration offices annually to be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. That program has been suspended, but visitors from certain countries still face special scrutiny when they enter or leave the country.

Rami Anklis, a UConn student from Lebanon who is pursuing a doctorate in pharmacy studies, said the experience of studying in America has changed completely since his two older brothers earned U.S. degrees 15 years ago.

"There are so many rules. If I change my address or change my bank account, I have to tell the school so they can notify immigration authorities," Anklis said. "In order to work, I have to get all kinds of clearances.
Anklis said many of his Lebanese peers have opted to attend schools in France, Belgium or Germany.